1. Rarotonga punches way above its weight
The archipelago’s most populous island has just over 20,000 inhabitants and a circumference of 32kms – you can walk across it in half a day. Yet it draws visitors from around the world clamouring for a romantic getaway, an adventurous holiday or a relaxing week.
It’s easy to see why -- Rarotonga has soul, and a lot of it, too. Home to vivid blue lagoons, sandstone churches, swaying palms, locals with exuberant smiles, a lush mountainous landscape and a bustling café and bar scene, the island offers plenty of ways to pass the time.
Nestled in its heart, the Punanga Nui cultural markets draw locals and travellers alike every Saturday. Stroll on down to find fresh produce, local snacks, sarongs, pearl jewellery, artisanal crafts, live music and performances. We love the colourful handmade quilts known as Tivaevae.
You can get to Rarotonga easily on a short non-stop flight from Sydney on Air New Zealand. Alternately, Air NZ, Virgin Australia and Jetstar all have flights via Auckland.
2. You can spend all day in the water
Aitutaki -- the Cook Islands’ second most-visited island, known for its postcard-worthy beaches -- is basically one big lagoon.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the clear waters surrounding the island may be some of the most beautiful in the world. They’re home to a multicoloured array of hard and soft corals, tropical fish and turtles, making underwater exploration a must-do, whether it’s by swimming, snorkelling or diving.
You can also spend the day above the sea, kayaking, sailing or deep-sea fishing. One of the best ways to experience the environment is on a full-day cruise stopping at the lagoons’ 15 islets.
Aitutaki is a 45-minute flight from Rarotonga – some holiday accommodation packages will include the flight over from the main island.
3. You’re never far from nature
With year-round sunny weather and a tropical climate, the Cook Islands offer plenty of incentive for natural discoveries.
Surrounded by a lush landscape, Wigmore’s Waterfall is popular with visitors to Rarotonga. More adventurous hikers may prefer the Cross-Island Track, a four-hour journey through untouched natural scenery that takes you to Te Rua Manga -- also known as the Needle -- a unique rock formation visible from across the island.
If you feel like wandering off the beaten track, visit Atiu -- another of country’s 15 islands. Accessible by air from Rarotonga and known for deserted beaches, limestone caves and a population of 400 warrior people, it’s one of the few untouched places left on Earth.
4. No building can be taller than a palm tree
The Cook Islands are refreshingly devoid of towering mega-resorts – the rule of thumb is that no building can be taller than the palm trees. But there are plenty of accommodation styles, from five-star stays to bungalows on the edge of a lagoon to family friendly apartments.
In Rarotonga, you can stay right by the ocean -- these villas ensure you won’t have to walk far to go for a dip, and a return flight is included in the package. Midrange options include the Muri Beach Club.
For for something extra-special, try these wooden bungalows, which offer panoramic views of the blue water of Aitutaki’s lagoon.
If you’re after a more traditional Polynesian experience, head to the island of Mitiaro for a homestay under a traditional thatched roof.
5. There’s not a fast food chain in sight
Eating in the islands is like tropical dream – a continual flow of just-caught seafood and local produce that’s grown in the rich volcanic soil. Think taro, papaya, coconut, bananas and kumara. Locals prepare a lot of their dishes and seafood in the umu, also known as an earth oven.
Enjoy a cocktail or two over dinner at one of the many restaurants scattered around the islands and watch the sun set. We love Ika Mata, a traditional raw fish dish that’s been cured in lime and coconut milk. Grilled Mahi Mahi is another great choice. Or if you’re feeling a bit adventurous, try rori - a sea cucumber which can be eaten raw or cooked with butter and spices.
After dinner you may want to check out an island culture show thrown by the locals -- an enticing combination of hip shaking, singing and fire.
From smiling locals at the weekly markets to seafood that goes straight from fishing boats to the grill and watching the blushing-pink sunsets, the Cook Islands are sure to capture your heart in more ways than one. You may not want to come home. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you.